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New Orleans still too moldy, activists claim

Mold is everywhere at very high levels in New Orleans and the federal government could do a better job of protecting people, an environmental group that did its own testing said Wednesday.
Adrienne LaCour (L) walks with his broth
Adrienne LaCour and Cindy Tarantino walk through a bedroom with mold stains six feet high in LaCour's childhood home in New Orleans on Oct. 5.Robyn Beck / AFP-Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mold is everywhere at very high levels in the New Orleans area and the federal government should be doing a better job of protecting people from the dangers of inhaling mold spores, the Natural Resources Defense Council said Wednesday.

Gina Solomon, a NRDC senior scientist, said it is very likely mold is causing the widespread complaint of coughing, a condition that's been referred to as the "Katrina cough."

The environmental group said the Environmental Protection Agency should be providing residents cleaning out their moldy homes with respirators and protective gear. The group also said the agency should create a mold monitoring system to give people real-time measurements on spore counts in the air.

EPA has not tracked mold levels, concentrating instead on arsenic, lead, asbestos, particulates and pollutants such as those found in gasoline. The agency said it has not detected serious air problems in New Orleans.

The agency has alerted people to the risk of breathing in mold with radio announcements and brochures. Respirators and protective clothing are commonly used by people and workers ripping out drywall and cleaning up homes and businesses.

But Pam Dashiell, who heads the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and has worked with the NRDC, said many residents in the Lower Ninth Ward have apparently not been told about the dangers of mold.

"You see people all the time working without gloves, without masks, even with their bare hands," Dashiell said. "I would really like to see the EPA inform the public about what they are encountering when they come back."

Test data released
The NRDC said sampling in mid-October, a month and a half after Hurricane Katrina hit, showed extremely high mold spore counts both indoors and outdoors in areas that were flooded. About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded when Katrina's storm surge broke through flood walls on drainage canals.

Sampling found the highest outdoor spore count — 102,000 per cubic meter — in the Mid-City neighborhood, the NRDC said. The American Academy of Allergy and Immunology rates any spore count higher than 50,000 per cubic meter as being very high. Very high levels were found in all the other flooded areas that were sampled.

The group sampled the air inside two homes and found extremely high levels of about 640,000 spores per cubic meter. The American Academy of Allergy and Immunology considers 1,300 spores per cubic meter a moldy indoor environment. Sampling also found that 2 percent of the spores in one home were toxic, the NRDC said.

Solomon said that although the sampling was done a month ago the amount of mold in the air and in homes has not changed much.

"The residue of mold from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may be with us for years to come," Solomon said.

Mold is particularly dangerous for people who suffer from allergies, asthma, lung diseases and weak immune systems, Solomon said.

Cough named after Katrina
Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana's state epidemiologist, earlier acknowledged that "people are going back to their house, cleaning up, going up on their roofs, doing all kinds of stuff they're not used to."

And Stephen Redd of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health said that mold exposure can pose health problems, especially for those who have weakened immune systems or mold allergies.

Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, stuffy nose and skin rashes.

At a downtown clinic, Dr. Peter DeBlieux said they're treating a lot of people with those kinds of problems. But whether it's the mold, dust, allergies or some other cause isn't known. There's also a lot of pollen in the air because there hasn't been a heavy rainfall recently, he said.

"Everybody's calling it the 'Katrina cough,'" he said.